But in order to deploy that lineup — Zakai Zeigler, Santiago Vescovi, Julian Phillips, Josiah-Jordan James and Olivier Nkamhoua — the Vols needed James to be healthy and available for something resembling his normal workload.
The versatile, 6-foot-6 James playing the 4 spot is vital to that small-ball lineup. His ability to defend and rebound in that spot while being hard to guard for opposing big men is arguably the most vital spoke in that wheel.
James can play every spot on the floor, but Barnes loves to deploy the former point guard as a point forward on offense and the ultimate “fix-it” guy on defense.
“It’s good because we’ve got experience out there and we’ve got Josiah, who is another guy that defensively is another guy that understands scouting reports and you put him out there with Zakai, and Santi, two guys that really lock in on scouting reports,” Barnes said. “I mean, they’re really good at it. They can do a lot of different things and what I would call fix-it guys. … Overall, it was a lineup we thought it was a lineup we would play a lot coming into the year, but we didn’t get a chance to work on it with Josiah being out.”
James’ prolonged battle with a surgically-corrected knee has been an issue for the Vols. No one tries to deny that. The hope was that James’ offseason procedure would get the issue corrected well before the start of the season, but the knee didn’t cooperate. James missed time, then returned but didn’t feel right, then went back on the shelf, and then finally returned again — hopefully for good — in the Vols’ 87-53 win over Mississippi State on Jan. 3 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee eased James back into the lineup, though. He came off the bench and played 17 minutes or less in the first three games, then 28 minutes in the upset loss to Kentucky on Jan. 14, but then 34 and 31 minutes in the Vols’ road wins over Mississippi State and LSU last week.
James said a change in medication combined with some minor preparation tweaks made a huge difference and finally alleviated the discomfort. That left conditioning as the final obstacle to overcome.
Barnes said he might have played James a few too many minutes last week, but the plan was always to use games to get the veteran back in game shape — something that’s never been an issue for the hard-working James when he’s healthy.
When Tennessee needs James, it’s going to have him on the floor. And Tennessee usually needs James. But the Vols also need James for the business end of the schedule — the stretch run and the postseason — and Barnes admitted that managing his reliable glue guy is a balancing act. He doesn’t always practice, and when he does it isn’t always at full speed. It’s a process geared toward the big picture.
“I think he would do it, just out of sheer toughness,” Barnes said. “Maybe he’s playing a little bit too much right now. But we know that we can’t assimilate what he needs for games, other than games, this time of year. He’ll keep getting better with that, his conditioning, he’ll do that. Again, everything is game-to-game. We’ve talked about the players and guys playing good, and we’re gonna ride that wave with ‘em.
source: 247 Sports